How Activists Helped Change Pakistan’s Honor-Killing Law

Authors: Leah Rodriguez and Daniele Selby

Photo Illustration by Raef Payne, Photos by Getty Images

Three years ago, Lidalia Encarnacion, a 31-year-old from the Bronx, New York, was shocked to learn that a Pakistani social media star had been murdered for, what seemed to Encarnacion, very normal behavior.

“She was just sharing a regular picture of a regular selfie,” Encarnacion, who works in the music and events industry, told Global Citizen.

Qandeel Baloch was often called “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian” and was famous for breaking with conservative traditions. The 26-year-old was known for posting photos of herself wearing “revealing” clothes and striking pouty poses. But one particularly controversial set of selfies may have led to her death.

In June 2016, Baloch met with Abdul Qavi, a high ranking-cleric and political figure at the time, even appearing to flirt with him in a video of the meeting. Baloch was criticized as being too sexually provocative in the photos they took together in which she is seen wearing Qavi’s hat.

The scandalous meeting and photos made her a household name in Pakistan, which her brother, Waseem Azeem, said embarrassed her family. He was allegedly harassed and pressured by relatives to restore their family’s image, which they believed had been “tarnished” by Baloch’s “improper” encounter with Qavi.

So on July 16, 2016, Azeem drugged and strangled her in their family home in the name of so-called “honor.” 

Qandeel Baloch.

Qandeel Baloch.
Photo by Asim Tanveer/AP

Qandeel Baloch.

Qandeel Baloch.
Photo by Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

Qandeel Baloch.

Qandeel Baloch.
Photo by Asim Tanveer/AP

Qandeel Baloch.

Qandeel Baloch.
Photo by Asim Tanvee/AP

Qavi lost his job in the aftermath of the scandal, but Baloch lost her life. 

Her tragic story underscored gender inequality in Pakistan and drew both international attention and outrage. Global Citizen’s tweet about Baloch’s murder caught Encarnacion’s attention, the mother of one said. The shocking story was the first time she — and many others — had heard of a problem that Pakistan has struggled with for decades: honor killings.

And it ultimately led her to take action.

I. What Are Honor Killings?

The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women are victims of honor killings every year. These women are killed in order to “cleanse family honor,” after an individual has brought perceived shame or dishonor to a family or community by violating social norms.

Rights organizations estimate that 1,000 honor killings take place in both Pakistan and India every year, but honor killings have also been reported in the United States, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Afghanistan, and at least a dozen other countries.

No religion advocates for or justifies honor killings. Instead, honor killings are most common in communities and cultures that consider women to be property whose value lies in their virginity or sexual modesty.

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

Views on Honor Killings in Pakistan

As a result, honor killings are disproportionately carried out against women who are perceived as violating social norms and expectations — including choice of clothing, education, employment, or romantic partner — engaging in premarital or extramarital sex, or behaving in a sexually provocative manner — as in Baloch’s case. Women may also be subjected to honor killings or other forms of honor-based violence — including acid attacks or forced marriage — for choosing their own marriage partner.

“In a lot of places … marriage is not a marriage between two individuals — it's a marriage between two families and it's an economic kind of arrangement,” Yasmeen Hassan, global executive director of nonprofit Equality Now, told Global Citizen. “So if women and girls can make their own choice and run off [to marry] on their own, that deprives the family the chance to choose how they will extend their family out.”

Men, usually partners of women perceived to have brought “shame” on her family, are sometimes victims of honor killings, but most honor killings are still perpetrated against women.

"Very rarely would [the target of shame] be the family of the man who is involved in running away with the woman. [Instead] the woman's family feels that slight because the woman was their property and has been taken … [and] their reputation has been sullied,” Hassan said.

They feel the only way to erase that “slight” and restore honor, Hassan said, is through murder, often committed by the father, uncle, husband, and, in some cases, even the mother of the girl or woman believed to have damaged her family’s reputation.

II. Lidalia Takes Action

“I couldn’t believe women live in the world in fear in their own home, in fear of their family members,” Encarnacion told Global Citizen. 

She added that she could not fathom that if “[women] do anything wrong … that's looked upon as dishonoring their family and the repercussions would be killing the woman.”

Encarnacion said that as a woman herself she could not imagine being in such a situation — one no woman should have to face. And that’s why she was moved to take action.

Encarnacion first learned of Global Citizen when a friend shared a link to the 2012 Global Citizen Festival. She’d never signed her name to a petition or engaged in political advocacy before, but in order to have a chance to win tickets to the festival she would have to start.

An action focused on increasing access to water and sanitation hit particularly close to home, Encarnacion remembers. Before immigrating to the US at the age of 7, Encarnacion had lived in Guerrero, Mexico where she and her family didn’t always have easy access to clean water, she said.

Over the next few years, Encarnacion would continue to take action, regularly standing up for women’s rights and education –– an issue she says is especially dear to her because she has a 10-year-old son who loves reading. Once she started taking action, she became a passionate advocate, even convincing her sister to join Global Citizen to do the same.

In 2016, after learning about Baloch, Encarnacion signed a petition targeting then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to follow through on his promise to rid his country of killings in the name of “honor.”

She was joined by nearly 25,000 people who penned their names to the petition, part of a campaign to end honor killings in Pakistan, which Leticia Pfeffer, senior manager of global policy and government affairs at Global Citizen, had coincidentally launched just days before Baloch’s murder.

Activists say it was one in a series of major events, including pressure from Global Citizens, that pushed Pakistan’s government to finally take action.

Honor killings were officially outlawed in Pakistan in 2004, yet persistent cultural norms and a legal loophole that allowed perpetrators to be forgiven by a victim’s family and set free made it possible for honor killings to persist.

Three months after Baloch’s death, Pakistan passed the Anti-Honor Killings Bill, which closed the loophole that effectively allowed an honor killing victim’s family to pardon the perpetrator. The bill had previously been tabled in Parliament for over a year, but the fresh outrage over Baloch’s case and international pressure helped push the legislation through at last.

III. The Tipping Point for Pakistan

While honor killings occur in many places around the world, in Pakistan, the problem is particularly acute.

Though 1,000 people are estimated to be victims of honor killings in the country every year, the true number is believed to be much higher. However, accurate statistics are hard to come by as honor killings are often misconstrued as other crimes, covered up, or simply not reported.

A woman speaks during an interview in the Ghotki district of Sindh, Pakistan, in December 2014. Her spouse accused her of having an affair, an offense that as many as 40 percent of Pakistanis believe would entitle him to execute her.
A woman speaks during an interview in the Ghotki district of Sindh, Pakistan, in December 2014. Her spouse accused her of having an affair, an offense that as many as 40 percent of Pakistanis believe would entitle him to execute her.
Image: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg/Getty Images

For years, activists have campaigned on the issue to prevent further violence against women — they called for stricter legislation and better law enforcement — and in 2016, progress finally seemed possible.

In February that year, Pakistani filmmaker and activist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for her film A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. The film tells the story of 19-year-old Saba Qaiser, who survived a brutal honor killing attempt. Her father and uncle shot her in the face, leaving her to die in a river, after learning she had married a man without her family’s permission.

“I personally thought it was important to tell the story of a survivor,” Obaid-Chinoy told Global Citizen. “And it is extremely difficult to do that because in honor killings, women are killed and lie in unmarked graves.” 

“For the first time we were having a national dialogue about honor killings,” Obaid-Chinoy said. 

The film’s global success also catapulted the issue of honor killings into the international spotlight. In fact, it was Obaid-Chinoy’s film that prompted Encarnacion to dig further into the issue of honor killings.

A month after Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar win, Global Citizen’s campaign — #LeveltheLaw — launched on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2016, to repeal and reform the unjust laws that discriminate against women and girls. And on July 11, opened a petition to stop honor killings addressed to the government of Pakistan to Global Citizens. Global Citizens immediately began signing the petition, a show of solidarity with Obaid-Chinoy — an advisory board member for CHIME for CHANGE, an initiative co-founded by Salma Hayek Pinault and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, supported by the Gucci Foundation.

Image: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

The campaign to end honor killings in Pakistan was also launched in partnership with Equality Now, which has worked to ensure governments comply with international human rights laws by holding them accountable since 1992. Equality Now has worked to make gender equitable laws the norm by working in countries, like Pakistan, to challenge laws in regions where discriminatory legislation exists in order to advance the rights of girls and women. 

But just four days after the launch of Global Citizen’s call to end honor killings, Baloch’s murder made international headlines, underscoring the urgent need for action.

Over the course of 2016, Global Citizens took more than 250,000 actions urging governments as part of Global Citizen’s overarching #LeveltheLaw campaign to amend all gender-discriminatory legislation, including laws that enable honor killings, child marriage, and violence against women to persist.

Over 90% of countries have at least one gender-discriminatory law on the books, according to the Word Bank. These range from laws that restrict a woman’s access to protection from domestic violence to her ability to own property or work without her husband’s permission. Ultimately, such laws prevent women and girls from exercising their fundamental human rights.

We know that equality in the law is a critical first step — it's definitely not a silver bullet for female empowerment — but if we are to achieve a world where everyone is given the same opportunities, this will not be possible until we do have gender equal laws on the books that protect all citizens,” Pfeffer said.

In the case of honor killings in Pakistan, Global Citizen’s actions supported and amplified the calls of activists on the ground who had been working on the issue for years, helping to bring about change.

"The 2016 Global Citizen Festival stage brought visibility to this campaign," Hassan said. "In partnership with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, CHIME FOR CHANGE and Global Citizen, we successfully put pressure on the government of Pakistan to enact an anti-honor crimes law that closed the loophole that enabled perpetrators of honor killings to go free or receive a minimal penalty."

IV. The Impact of International Pressure

Though Baloch’s death stunned the world, few in Pakistan were shocked. 

“She was seen as courageous. She was defying stereotypes and … being her own person, and then she was killed for that reason,” Hassan said.

What set Baloch’s murder apart from the hundreds of other cases of honor killings that take place in Pakistan every year, however, was the fact that the whole country had been following the star. Her death could not slip by unnoticed.

Pakistani civil society activists carry signs during a protest against the murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch by her own brother, on July 18, 2016 in Islamabad.
Pakistani civil society activists carry signs during a protest against the murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch by her own brother, on July 18, 2016 in Islamabad.
Image: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

With Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary garnering so much attention, Pakistan was unable to hide from this issue any longer, Hassan explained. And international pressure was mounting in other ways.

“Pakistan has a very vibrant, very active civil society that has pushed for change and campaigned for many years against honor crimes, but Sharmeen’s documentary was a turning point,” Benazir Jatoi, an Islamabad-based women’s rights activist and human rights lawyer, told Global Citizen.

The documentary not only introduced the issue of honor killings to the world but also exposed the cracks in Pakistan’s legal system, which made it possible for perpetrators of honor killings to evade justice. 

To its credit, the government of Pakistan embraced the opportunity to address the issue, Hassan said. 

After seeing the film, Prime Minister Sharif pledged to put an end to honor killings by amending legislation. And the government hosted viewings of the film around the world, including a screening with Equality Now at the UN headquarters in New York City.

“No government, particularly the government of Pakistan, wants to look bad in international eyes — and that's what this documentary exposed. [It exposed] the legal system and the cultural system to ... have no protections for this girl,” Hassan said.

Both Jatoi and Hassan said the film’s international success and global outrage over honor killings put an unavoidable pressure on the Pakistan government to make the change. And pressure from people around the world, including Global Citizens, helped push the government to take action.

“All over the world, no matter the language, we were there for the same reason –– to take action against honor killings,” Encarnacion remembered about signing the petition. 

“People don't understand how much it helps … but when you get a lot of signatures and those are presented to a government, the government is going to change because … they know people are watching — and they're not just people from your country, but they're people from all over the world [that] are watching what's happening with you,” Hassan said.

“It gives an impetus to change … Each of us is an agent of change. Each of us is a global citizen and I think we all need to act,” she added.

V. The Fight to Level the Law 

For more than a decade, human rights activists in Pakistan and elsewhere campaigned to close loopholes in the country’s legal system, which enabled perpetrators of honor killings to go free or receive a minimal penalty.

In 2004, the government passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act — also known as the Honor Killings Law — which provided a legal definition of “honor crimes,” including honor killings, that criminalized the offense and set a minimum prison sentence of seven years.

However, the legislation allowed perpetrators of honor killings to be set free or to be minimally punished in cases where the victim’s family forgave the perpetrator, or the perpetrator paid reparations — so-called “blood money” — to the victim’s family. The latter practice stems from the Islamic law of Diyat.

It also left room for honor killings to be classified as murders due to “provocation” — a law stemming from British colonial rule, according to Hassan, comparable to a crime of passion — which allowed judges to give lighter sentences.

Baloch’s case further underscored this same problem. And in late July, the Anti-Honor Killings Bill — originally introduced by then senator Sughra Imam in 2015 — was re-introduced for another vote. The bill, which sought to close these legal loopholes and end the pardoning of honor killings, passed unanimously in the Senate in 2015, but stalled in Parliament.

But activists were hopeful that the bill would finally be taken up in 2016, on the heels of international outrage and scrutiny.

Global Citizens continued to take action and, by September, had taken tens of thousands of actions to help end honor killings and echo the message of Obaid-Chinoy and other activists in Pakistan. Overall, 24,558 Global Citizens took 35,460 actions to have Pakistan’s laws related to honor killings changed. 

The filmmaker appeared on the Global Citizen Festival stage alongside Hayek Pinault in Sept. 24, 2016, making a passionate plea to governments to end violence against women — particularly, the government of Pakistan. Obaid-Chinoy also produced a special video for the festival, telling what she called Baloch’s “very short story.”

VI. A Major Win and Crucial First Step

On Oct. 6, 2016, the government finally passed the Anti-Honor Killings Bill in response to civil society groups in Pakistan advocating against honor killings, and efforts by Equality Now, Obaid-Chinoy and the actions of Global Citizens.

"No girl or woman deserves to die for wanting to live her life to her own goals and values,” Obaid-Chinoy told Global Citizen via email after the law passed. “This important win in Pakistan has the potential to safeguard the lives of many women, and now it's up to the Pakistan government to enforce this law."

The passing of the Anti-Honor Killings Bill showed that pressure from everyday activists and advocates can help level the law. The legislation undoubtedly marked a major turning point in the push to end honor killings on a national level in Pakistan, but it’s clear the fight is not over.

Unfortunately, the enforcement of the law hasn’t been nearly as strong as many had hoped. And, today, more than two years after the bill was passed, not a single person has been convicted of an honor killing — not even in Baloch’s case.

“Legislation is one thing but the implementation of those legislations is very important,” Obaid-Chinoy said. 

Baloch’s parents initially wanted justice served for their daughter. Instead, years later, her parents have recanted their support for prosecutions against their son under pressure from their community, even telling the BBC in 2018 that he did not murder her.

Nonprofits and law enforcement say awareness of honor killings and honor-based crimes is rising, leading to more women and girls reporting incidences of violence, the BBC reports, but the law — much celebrated at the time of its passing — has not yet proved effective.

People protest against "honor killings" of women in Lahore on November 21, 2008.
People protest against "honor killings" of women in Lahore on November 21, 2008.
Image: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Women face ongoing threats throughout the country, despite tighter regulations. 

“There is still much more to be done to ensure that laws such as the anti-honor killings bill are actually implemented on the ground and that women are protected from this horrible form of abuse and violence,” Pfeffer explained.

In order to stop the practice of honor killings, advocates say all cultural norms and laws that enshrine women’s status as second-class citizens must be changed.

Additionally, experts say the problem is that the 2016 amendment, which set a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence for honor killings, still allows judges to decide whether a murder was “honor-based” or committed with another motive. In cases of murder motivated by reasons other than honor, judges can give lower sentences.

While the new law prohibits victims’ families from forgiving and pardoning perpetrators of honor killings — except in cases of death sentences — if a judge rules that the murder was committed for another reason, the victim’s families are, once again, able to pardon the killer. 

Relatives can also choose to pardon those who commit honor killings outside of court at any time and can drop the case against them.

In 2017, multiple perpetrators of honor killings successfully argued different motives and were then able to be pardoned by the victim’s family, according to the Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani NGO.

Still, the 2016 law was a crucial step in making long-term change, but a more holistic approach is needed to end the practice of honor killings in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world.

“What doesn't appear like progress to others out there, in Pakistan and in other countries that are facing this stuff, every bit of progress is real progress,” Hassan said. 

“To get the crime down is the ultimate goal, but that really requires a multi-pronged effort and [a] very, very important part of it is getting the law right and getting the government to be accountable for these girls — so that part at least we've accomplished,” Hassan continued.

But to truly put a stop to honor killings, Hassan and other activists say better law enforcement, training of police, shelters for women, and education efforts are needed.

VII. A Sign of Progress

“In order for things to really change, an honor crime case would have to go through the system all the way to the Supreme Court to see a difference,” Jatoi said. And there may be hope for that.

The Supreme Court recently agreed to consider the case of five girls believed to be victims of honor killings that took place in 2011. Jatoi said the case was finally taken up by the court after years of campaigning by rights activists on behalf of the girls — who were last seen alive, laughing and clapping as a young man dances, in a video made in 2010.

Though police only filed an official report of the honor killings last year — seven years after the girls’ alleged deaths — the Supreme Court ordered an investigation, according to Pakistan newspaper Dawn.

Jatoi said the decision of the Supreme Court to consider the case as one of honor killings itself is “a formal acceptance of the fact that girls were killed in the name of honor” and could be considered progress because of what it signals.

Global Citizen action taker Encarnacion remains hopeful. She said she believes more reported honor killings will lead to change.

“We women are strong, we can do so much,” she said. “Honor killings will not go in vain.”

As part of ongoing efforts to #LeveltheLaw around the world, Global Citizen will continue to support activists like Jatoi in Pakistan who are pushing for progress. And Global Citizens everywhere can keep using their voices to help drive change forward for girls, women, and a brighter future for all.